A small academic industry has developed to prove that William Shakespeare, a provincial lad from Stratford-upon-Avon, could not have written the much-loved plays that bear his name.
The "real" author has been identified by various writers as Christopher Marlowe, Francis Bacon and the Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere.
Now, a new book claims that the real Bard was Sir Henry Neville, an English courtier and distant relative of the Stratford Shakespeare. Shakespeare himself was simply a front man, claim Brenda James and William Rubinstein in "The Truth Will Out: Unmasking the Real Shakespeare."
James, an English literature lecturer, said Neville "wanted (the plays) to go under another name and wanted a poor relation to have a hand up."
James and Rubinstein, a professor of history at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, argue that Shakespeare of Stratford, who came from a modest background and did not attend university, could not have had enough knowledge of the politics, foreign languages and European cities described in the plays to have written them.
Neville, in contrast, was well-educated, had traveled to all the countries used as settings in the plays and had a life that matched up with what "Shakespeare" was writing about at the time, the book says.
"The more we looked into his life, the more convincing the matchup became," Rubinstein said.
James said that she began exploring the connection between Shakespeare and Neville about six years ago when she deciphered what she believes is a code on the dedication page of Shakespeare's sonnets. The code revealed the name Henry Neville.
"I thought I must be seeing things; nobody's ever heard of Henry Neville. To my great surprise, his birth and death dates were almost the same as Shakespeare's," she said.
Further research turned up more evidence pointing to Neville, who served for a time as ambassador to France.
The authors say Neville's life helps explain a switch in Shakespeare's plays, from histories and comedies to tragedies, at the turn of the 17th century. Neville was imprisoned in the Tower of London from 1601 to 1603 for his role in the Essex rebellion (the attempt by the Earl of Essex and his supporters to overthrow Queen Elizabeth I), which the authors say accounts for the more tragic tone of "Hamlet," written in 1601 and 1602, and the plays that follow.
Many Shakespeare experts dismiss the theory.
"Like most previous theories that challenge Shakespeare's authorship of the plays, this claim makes the mistake of assuming his education and general knowledge of the world were very limited," said Roger Pringle, director of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford. "There is plenty of evidence to suggest Shakespeare received a thoroughly good classical education at the Stratford grammar school and then, for well over 20 years, was involved in artistic and intellectual circles in London."
Jonathan Bate, a professor of literary studies at Warwick University and author of "The Genius of Shakespeare," said, "There's not a shred of evidence in support of the argument; it's full of errors. There's no reason to doubt that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare."
Bate said the authorship question emerged more than 100 years ago "out of snobbery."
"People began to say, 'How could a middle-class grammar school boy from the provinces write these plays?"' he said. "It shows how Shakespeare has become such a cult figure. The moment Shakespeare becomes regarded as the greatest of all writers, inevitably heresies start emerging."
But Mark Rylance, artistic director of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London, called the book "pioneering."
"As this book rightly suggests, if the plays had not been attributed to Shakespeare in 1623, he would be the last person you would imagine able to write such matter," he wrote in the book's foreword.
Rubinstein said he hoped those who were convinced that Shakespeare wrote his own plays would consider the evidence rationally.
"What they must do is explain all the inconsistencies and inadequacies of Shakespeare's life as it's known to us and use it to explain the plays," he said.
By Jenn Wiant